Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain’s Fragmented Wildlife by Hugh Warwick

This year, I have set myself the very modest challenge of reading 12 books about my field. Not limited to horticulture, I’m excited to explore more nature writing, conservation literature and – unexpectedly – books about animals. When you change career, it can be tempting to develop tunnel vision for your new industry, but it is important to explore the periphery too. So to kick this off, I have done exactly that.

In this book, ecologist and hedgehog expert Hugh Warwick uncovers the history of the lines that have fragmented British land, from the reaves in Dartmoor dating back 3,500 years to the rail network cutting a patchwork pattern in all directions. While anyone with a modicum of interest in conservation will be familiar with the high-profile challenges we are currently facing, habitat fragmentation is not nearly as mainstream, considering its enormous impact.

Habitat fragmentation is a fairly straightforward issue – when impenetrable man-made structures such as fences, canals and train tracks are put in place, once sprawling land becomes finite. Resources become depleted, predators face more competition and animals may be forced into urban settings to find food, a mate and shelter.

Fragmentation is much more complex and has bigger implications on the delicate network of nature for me to explain, but when I first started reading this book, I was acutely aware of the parallels that exist between fragmented wildlife in Britain and the ever-narrowing plains in sub-Saharan Africa. Urban expansion – and the consequential transport and energy infrastructure that comes with it – have forced animals into land that shrinks year by year.

When I think about some of the issues I am most interested in, they all come down to the same thing: the natural order has been disrupted. Where animals once fed on vegetation as they moved through the land, boundaries now keep them confined to a space with limited resources to feed growing populations. We often see this as a driving force in elephant culling. Vegetation is destroyed faster than it can recuperate and this leads ecologists to deem a cull necessary – to protect the plants and maintain the ‘delicate balance’.

Let’s just say I have questions.

  • What if we used a variation of crop rotation, a familiar vegetable growing technique, to give the soil, trees and organisms a chance to recuperate?
  • Would it be possible to ‘rotate’ these animals around different parts of the larger nature reserves?
  • Would this allow the important vegetation time to recuperate?
  • Does it need to recuperate, when we know that dead vegetation created a habitat for a humungous range of organisms?
  • Would all of this simply be creating more fragmentation?

I don’t know, but this book has brought a lot of questions out of the woodwork for me, which I think is the tenet of any good book. So if you saw this in your local bookshop and were on the fence about grabbing a copy, make sure you do. But be warned, by the end of it, you’ll want to rip that fence out of the ground and plant a species-rich hedge instead.

Gardening Journal – Entry 3

Thursday 17 September 2020

Today was a bit of a stressful one, as we may have a COVID case at work. With no testing available in London, it’s a waiting game – my least favourite. I worked on hedgecutting, which I have done a couple of times before. However, this time I used a long-arm hedgecutter, which was new. This also involved getting into the the harness contraption that helps take on some of the weight of the machine. All in all, it was a good day of learning, albeit quite tiring.

The long-arm hedgecutter helps you cut taller plants, such as the Trachelospermum jasmioides we worked on that was climbing a tall structure. You can adjust the angle of the arm to help to reach tight spaces and avoid bending too much. I found it a lot more fiddly to work with that the usual hedgecutters I’ve used in the past. This was largely due to being smacked repeatedly in the face by a dangling carabina I couldn’t reach.

We were also working on trimming some of the Euonymus japonicus low hedge we had planted in winter. I found this one a lot trickier to cut, as it was only about 30cm tall. I eventually switched from using the long-arm hedgecutter to the normal one, which made it a lot easier to level out.

Finally, I was given the chance to trim an Ilex topiary ball. As I was using a hedgecutter, it was not as precise as I would have liked but I managed to make a general sphere shape. It didn’t help that the holly was in very poor condition, with quite a lot of defoliation due to underwatering. This produced a less compact hedge, which didn’t provide any bounce when cutting it.

All in all, I enjoyed using a new machine, however, I think I definitely need more practice using both the harness and the long-arm hedgecutter.

Gardening Journal – Entry 2

Tuesday 15 September 2020

We were back at the park today, and it was absolutely roasting. There were moments where I could even see the swirls and waves of hot air coming off the sports pitches! The person training us was at one point wearing four layers, including a gilet and some black plastic waterproof trousers. It was hot just to look at him!

Today we worked primarily on line marking. This involved overmarking a football pitch, both ‘eyeballing’ by using the previous line as a reference, and the more precise string and stake method. We used a manual line marker and the typical watered down white emulsion paint typically used for this job. The line marker works using three rollers that are in contact with each other and pass the paint up from the reservoir and onto the bottom roller, distributing the paint on the grass. There is a brush feature on the roller, which can be used to regulate the amount of paint you apply. On dry days like today, there is no need for a reduction in paint flow. However, if it were a rainy day or the ground was wet, you may reduce the paint flow to 50% or 25%, to prevent the paint from spreading.

To set up the string and stake, you need some string on a line marking reel and two stakes. First, the reel is set up behind the beginning of the line, leaving enough space to work around it. Then the end of the string is pulled to the other end of the line, with a stake in tow. The string is looped onto the bottom of the stake and the stake is pushed into the ground on the corner of where the previous marked line was. You can then return to the reel at the beginning of the line and pull the string taught, to check if the line is straight. Once it is lined up, you can create a slipknot and stake the string at the beginning of the line, keeping the string as taught and straight as possible. On longer lines, it is worth walking to the middle of the line and ‘pinging’ the string, making sure it is not caught on any bumps in the grass.

Then it’s time for the fun(ish) bit – using the line marker! As there are stakes and reels in the way at the beginning and ends of the line, it is best to start about 1m in and work backwards towards the stake. After that, you can turn around and walk the length of the string, making sure the bottom roller is in line with the string at all times. I found it easier to check this by walking to the left of the machine, where the string was more visible, however, some people prefer to walk behind the roller. I’m just not a fan of the penguin waddle you have to do to keep from walking on the fresh paint!

We covered all the lines on the football pitch, including the circle and semi-circles, which had to be overmarked using the eyeball method. For the smaller corner curves, it is easier to lift up the back wheels and simply use the front wheel to keep the quadrant tight.

After that, we got into the maths portion of our day, as we marked out a rectangle for an events area. While it is helpful to know the width and height of the rectangle you are marking out, using Pythagoras theorem is the best way to ensure every corner is at a right angle.

Pythagoras theorem is an equation used to find the length of a triangle’s third side, when you know the lengths of two other sides. The equation is as follows (where x is the unknown side and y and z are the known sides):

x = √y²+z²

As such, when we were told to mark out a rectangle measuring 8m by 6m, we found the square of each side by multiplying 8×8=64 and 6×6=36. Then we added those together: 64+36=100. Finally, we found the square root of 100, which is 10.

This is how those numbers matter when marking out a right angled rectangle: once you have marked out the first line (8m) and staked both points, you take two tape measures, one measuring from the first stake and another measuring from the second stake. You know that the next side you are marking will be 6m, so you can measure this out. Then, you know that the diagonal line will have to be 10m, so you measure this out too. Finally, you pull the tape measures to the point where the 10m and 6m mark are overlapping. This is the exact spot where your next stake has to go. To finish off the rectangle, you simply pull the measuring tapes across to create another diagonal line and line up the 10m and 6m again. You have now staked out a rectangle!

To mark this out with the line marker, you pull a string tightly around the outside of all four stakes and pass the manual line marker around the outside of the string. You can remove the stakes and finish off any bare patches you may have missed.

We also worked on marking out a circle, which is significantly easier and faster! Once you know the diameter of the circle and where the centre of your circle should be, you place a stake in the centre point with some string looped to the bottom of it. Then, you halve the diameter of the circle to find the radius. Our circle had to be a total width of 4m, so we halved this (2m) and marked out this length on the string. Then we simply pulled this string around the stake, followed by the manual line marker, creating a circle with a radius of 2m and therefore a diameter of 4m.

Just as the sun started bearing down on us, we worked on creating a new cricket pitch, as an end of season booking had been made. This involved marking out an area… again. I can confirm that it was way too hot to be remembering measurements and working out squares and square roots, but nonetheless, we persevered. It is important to know the typical dimensions of a cricket pitch, although these can change depending where you work. Usually, a cricket pitch will measure 20.12m long and 3.05m wide, with a minimum of 1.22m behind the stumps. We worked to a width of 3.4m and lined up our wicket area with that of the adjacent pitch.

First of all, we used the string and stake method to mark the two long lines and this area was mowed using a cylinder mower, initially on a higher cut of about 8mm and then on the lowest cut of 3mm. Usually, this would be done over the course of two or three days, to allow the grass to recover. Unfortunately, we did not have much time before the cricket game, as a it was a last-minute booking. One thing that is important to note is that unlike mowing on amenity areas, or even the rest of the cricket square, a cricket pitch must be mown twice over the same line. In other words, there should be no decorative lines like you would find on other turf.

After passing over the grass with the cylinder mower, we used a calibrated frame to mark out the wicket areas. We used two long planks of wood lined up against the frame and sprayed in between the planks and the frame with white line marking spray paint, to create a sharp, straight line. Once everything had been sprayed in, including the middle wicket line, we were finished!

It was a long, but very informative day and I’m glad to be at home. I must say that I’m excited to return to our familiar depot and to not have to cycle across all of London. Nonetheless, I had a great time learning more about sports turf and cruising around the park in a golf cart.

Gardening Journal – Entry 1

Monday 14 September 2020

Today, I worked at a different location – in an actual park! It was my third visit, after a site trip in February and two days working there last week. These work-away days give us some experience on sports turf maintenance, as the sites we work on day-to-day are for amenity use only.

We have just moved our boat to Little Venice so my commute has got significantly longer; instead of the leisurely 15 minute cycle I had started to get used to, I cycled for over an hour today! You know it’s going to be a scorcher when the sun is already beating down at 7am. And it proved to be really hot day – perfect for a spot of toiling outdoors and heavy lifting!

We worked exclusively on the cricket square today, starting our day off with a mix of brushing the turf, watering the drier patches of the cricket pitches and passing over the cricket square with a scarifyer. The machine we used to scarify the turf was a much older model of the one I’m used to. Between spewing out black smoke and flames from the exhaust (yes, actual flames) and its clippings collection box falling off at every turn, I felt myself missing our sleek scarifyer back at the depot!

The purpose of scarifying is to remove a buildup of thatch, which has a series of negative impacts on the sward such as not allowing rainwater to penetrate through to the soil and encouraging weeds and moss. Scarifying also cuts through the grass rhizomes on the soil surface, creating a stronger sward while also very lightly aerating the soil. Scarifying usually takes place at the end of the cricket season as part of the turf renovations. In the UK, this tends to be around September, when the football season really kicks off.

Following that, we worked on aerating the cricket square (excluding the pitches with less grass on them). We used a Groundsman spiker with solid tines. This is the first time I had used this brand of machine and I found it uncomfortable to work with, although doable. This, in part, was due to the hardness of the ground as a result of the warm, dry weather. Although we had watered the area beforehand and allowed the moisture to absorb over our lunch break, the ground still felt solid. This led to a lot of vibration and enough shaking to make your arms buzz for a good 20 minutes after. In some very dry areas, the machine actually rocked from side to side with the shaking. Maybe it was a combination of the heat and not enough sleep but Laurence and I couldn’t stop laughing at the sight of the aerator bouncing around the corners.

We used solid tines as we wanted to reduce the compaction in the soil resulting from a season of use in cricket games. Tomorrow, we may have time to use the machine with hollow tines, which remove cores from the turf, allowing for even more aeration, as well as creating an ideal environment for top dressing.

Last week, I spent two days at the site working on the cricket square and marking out a football pitch. I found it really helpful to use the line marker and set up a pole and string to get the line perfectly straight.

I’m excited for tomorrow, as I heard that we may be using the roller machine, which I have used once before. Why is it so much fun to drive a vehicle with a steering wheel knob? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the casual elegance of it. What I do know is that I need to improve my reversing when I have a go on it next as I was all over the place last time!

Meet the gardener

Often when we hear the stories of accomplished gardeners known for their TV work or bestselling books, we hear about their lifelong ambition to work in gardens. Their first memories were of wandering through fields in the Midlands, sitting under old oak trees and blackberry picking. Their first words were the Latin plant names their horticulture-savvy parents taught them. It sounds fantastic and idyllic but that’s not where my gardening story began.

You see, I never had any inkling I wanted to work in gardens, beyond the occasional watering of plants in my family home or sweeping fallen berries from under an elderflower tree, if you can call that work. The same way that some people knew they were destined for gardening greatness, I was certain I wanted to be a journalist.

I dropped science and maths as soon as I could and dived headfirst into humanities, studying English literature, journalism and media studies, as well a a handful of languages. Getting into a competitive journalism degree in the university of my dreams was incredible. However, I was moving from a northern hemisphere school in Kuwait to a South African university with an academic year flipped on its head. This meant that I had about seven months to kill before I would be packing up my things and starting university.

So, in the two months before I turned 18, I enrolled in a safari guiding course in the middle of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. I was to learn about animal behaviour, botany, plant identification, stargazing and how to engage a vehicle full of people with short attention spans and one, often challenging demand – to see the ‘Big Five’. I parrot-learnt scientific names and was absolutely terrified by our Nature Reserve First Aid training (think photos of crocodile attack victims and what happens when you spook a young bull elephant). I learnt a lot at the Bhejane training centre, including how not to catch a centipede racing around your tent (a whicker basket will not work) and that Savannah Drys are delicious, but can send you to bed if you overdo it. I left after ten weeks with my qualification and the conviction that I would never use any of the information I had learnt.

As excited as I had been, I didn’t enjoy my degree. Initially, I found the work boring, with too much overlap with my AS curriculum. By the end of my degree, I had studied Wuthering Heights five times in my academic career. I still love the novel (and how it led me to Kate Bush), but there’s only so many times you can read about Heathcliff verbally assaulting his family before it starts to grate.

After three years and lots of reporting on student protests, I left my university town relieved and very shaken. I had definitely experienced more stun grenades and rubber bullets than I had expected when I first applied and it truly put me off the kind of journalism I was doing.

At the beginning of 2017, I moved to London, to take care of my little brother as he started stage school. I discovered the notion that London is full of jobs is absolutely true. What they don’t tell you is that most of these jobs will be terrible and you’ll find yourself walking out of many a ‘buzzy’ start-up near Old Street with the EDM music still ringing in your ears wondering if you should just sell your underwear on the internet to pay the rent.

After two years of working in advertising, marketing and social media jobs and feeling my soul slowly draining from my body, I accepted that I would need a drastic change. So I took a year out, but not in the fun rich kids on a gap year way; I worked full time in a bookshop. I was at work every other weekend and barely saw my newly-wed husband. I faced the wrath of customers who just wanted to bully someone over a 10p bag before heading on to the next shop and the next victim earning minimum wage.

The one redeeming factor about working there was the nature writing writing section. I read everything I could get my hands on. I fell in love with agriculture and its heritage in Britain through James Rebank’s The Shepherd’s Life and I started to take notice of my surroundings much more after reading the beautiful depictions of nature in On The Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin.

I decided to pursue horticulture after asking myself a simple question – what did I enjoy doing as a child? I loved being outdoors, running around the garden and climbing trees. I loved running my fingers through long grasses and watching the mangoes ripen on the stem, but never being able to reach them. I loved walking across school sports pitches early in the morning and seeing the dew collecting on the cuffs of my trousers. I especially loved feeling the textures of leaves, bark and flowers and ‘dissecting’ them to see their inner workings. Looking back, I realised I had always had a deep connection to plants and the outdoors; I just hadn’t recognised it as something I could pursue as a career.

So here I find myself: eight months into a two-year apprenticeship and working towards my RHS Level 2 qualification. I have never been so excited by a job or my studies and I’m thrilled that I’m finally getting to appreciate the childlike joy of dissecting flowers, walking across dewy sports pitches and running around gardens, this time with a wheelbarrow in tow. While it’s not wandering through fields or blackberry picking, it feels pretty fantastic and idyllic to me!